The Civil Service Fast Stream

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What is the Civil Service Fast Stream?

The Civil Service Fast Stream is the government’s accelerated development programme for the UK civil service.

It provides talented graduates with the core skills needed to become the future leaders of government departments. Many fast streamers eventually take on senior management roles in the civil service; at least seven current or former permanent secretaries were initially recruited through the Fast Steam.

Fast Streamers enter civil service departments at a specialist grade – Higher Executive Officer (HEO) level – and typically take around four years to progress to Grade 7, the sixth most senior grade.

The Fast Stream isn’t the only way into the civil service, however. Other forms of recruitment include:

  • The Fast Track apprenticeship scheme that offers an alternative to university.
  • HMT graduate programme – HM Treasury recruits separately from the Fast Stream, although the application process is very similar.
  • Jobs advertised on GOV.UK and online job boards.

How big is the Fast Stream?

The Fast Stream has grown dramatically in recent years. Even before Brexit – which has increased recruitment activity in Whitehall – Fast Stream appointments were on the rise, increasing by 28% in 2016.

Applications also rose from 21,135 to 32,450 between 2015 and 2016, possibly due to changes in the online testing process. Applications took a dive when numerical and verbal reasoning tests were introduced in 2004, but rose rapidly after situational judgement tests were changed in 2016.  

What are the different Fast Streams?

The Civil Service Fast Stream consists of 15 different streams. These can be subdivided into the Graduate Fast Stream – incorporating the Central Departments (Generalist), Houses of Parliament, Diplomatic Service and Science/Engineering streams – and other specialist streams focussing on specific professions in the civil service.

The structure of the Fast Stream has evolved to meet the changing needs of the civil service. In recent years, the number of streams has grown as the focus has shifted towards developing specialist as well as generalist skillsets in senior roles. Newly created schemes include Project Delivery in 2016, and Communications and Finance in 2015.

In 2016 the largest stream by intake was the Central Departments, which made 339 appointments. The smallest stream was the Houses of Parliament, which made only four appointments.

What does the application process look like?

Applications are open to everyone who meets the nationality requirements and has a class 2.2 degree or above. But it is highly competitive, with less than 5% of applicants being recommended for appointment in each recruitment cycle.

In 2015, only 55% of initial registrations for the Fast Stream resulted in completed applications. This increased to 82% in 2016, after the application process was changed to replace numerical and verbal reasoning tests with situational judgement tests.


In 2016, Communications was by far the most oversubscribed stream, having received 287 applications per vacancy, while the Economists scheme received fewer than five applications per vacancy. Applicants to the Graduate Fast Stream are only able to specify their preferred sub-stream after passing the online tests, so it isn’t possible to measure the competitiveness of, for example, the Central Departments or Houses of Parliament streams against the specialist streams.

Some sub-streams of the Graduate Fast Stream attract significantly more interest than others. In 2016, 2,258 applicants to the Graduate Fast Stream (56%) put the Diplomatic Service as their first preference of sub-stream, but only 39 appointments were made.

The Cabinet Office is aiming to speed up the Fast Stream application cycle. In 2017, it took between 16 and 18 weeks from the point of application to a job offer being made. The Cabinet Office says this time frame will be reduced to 12 weeks for 51% of applicants in the 2018 cycle.

What degree disciplines are in demand?

Economics graduates, despite comprising only 8% of applicants, accounted for just over 20% of appointees, and students with mathematics degrees comprised 5% of appointees but only 3% of applicants. As in previous years, humanities and social science graduates account for nearly 44% of appointees in 2016. By contrast, business graduates fared much worse, making up 6% of applicants but only 3% of appointees.

How diverse is the Fast Stream?

Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood remarked in the 2016 Fast Stream and Early Talent Annual Report that the civil service aims to be “a powerful engine for social mobility, promoting opportunity and aspiration for all.” One recent change made in line with this aim was the opening of a new Fast Stream Assessment Centre in Newcastle in 2017.

The Civil Service Commission’s Recruitment Principles outline a commitment to fair and open competition and selection on merit, and the 2016 Report reveals the Fast Stream to be increasingly popular with graduates across a range of backgrounds. Applicants with disabilities comprised 9% of the cohort in 2015 and 2016, but appointees with a disability rose from 9.3% of the cohort in 2015 to 12.7% in 2016.

As Heywood has made clear, however, the civil service workforce is still quite far from being representative of the population it serves. Although interest from people from lower socio-economic backgrounds rose slightly from 8% in 2015 to 8.6% in 2016, the percentage of working class candidates recommended for appointment fell from 4.1% to 3.8%.

Increasing socio-economic and ethnic diversity will continue to be targeted in line with the recommendations made by the 2016 Bridge Report, which highlighted how the civil service is still failing to recruit a representative workforce. The Early Diversity Internship Programme (EDIP) and Summer Diversity Internship Programme (SDIP) are becoming more popular, but the challenge will be to ensure that the minority groups participating in these programmes are properly prepared to compete for Fast Stream places.

The trend of appointments by gender has been moving gradually in favour of women. 38% of candidates recommended for appointment were female in 1998, while this figure has stood at around 47% for the past three years. According to the Cabinet Office, innovative methods are being used to address gender imbalance across the whole civil service. In 2016, new software was used to remove gender bias from all Fast Stream webpages and related media.

As in previous years, the Economist, Operational Research and Digital and Technology streams are the most male-dominated, while appointments to the Communications and European streams were 75% and 71% women respectively.

Update date: 
Friday, April 27, 2018